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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, March 12, 2006

Your right to know is being eroded

 •  Hawai'i among worst in access to documents

By Saundra Keyes
Advertiser Editor

A local executive called last fall to insist that The Advertiser delay publication of a story about a major public-private deal.

His argument, bolstered by threats from his publicist that we'd be shut out of future stories, went something like this:

If we gave our readers details of the deal, which involved millions of tax dollars, some of them might misunderstand. They might dislike it, and perhaps they would complain. If they complained, some parties to the deal might get nervous and back out. So it would be better for Hawai'i if we just kept quiet about what we had learned until after the deal was done.

We published the story, the deal went through, and life goes on.

But I'm reminded of that conversation as The Advertiser kicks off Sunshine Week, joining journalism's second national weeklong effort to focus attention on the public's right to know what government is doing.

My caller was correct in thinking that citizens may challenge elected officials and developers if they're told how deals are made and tax dollars are spent.

But sunshine laws in Hawai'i and across the country were enacted on the premise that government should be visible to citizens, unwieldy though the resulting debates can be.

Introducing Sunshine Week in this space last year, I focused on examples of federal government secrecy a problem that has worsened in the intervening months.

This year, I'll stick to sunshine issues closer to home, and I'd be interested in your opinions on them.

Are you comfortable with the fact that our state Legislature exempts itself from open-government laws that apply to other public bodies?

Do you agree with the state Senate Judiciary Committee's recent vote to hold (in effect, to kill) a bill that would have legally required legislators to fulfill obligations such as posting a 48-hour notice for committee hearings?

The Legislature has an internal rule that calls for such notice, but like many of those rules, it is frequently waived. The waivers mean that citizens who might have wanted to testify about a bill, or simply hear discussion of it, can be robbed of that chance.

State Sens. Colleen Hanabusa, Clayton Hee, Paul Whalen and Suzanne Chun Oakland killed the effort to make public notice a requirement rather than an option. Hanabusa, the Senate majority leader and chairwoman of the Judiciary Committee, later said the 48-hour notice requirement "just doesn't work for us."

State Sen. Les Ihara, who sponsored the failed bill, said many of his colleagues contend that Hawai'i's legislative session of 60 working days is too short to allow for consistent public notice.

Speaking at a recent First Amendment seminar, Ihara said those colleagues argue that they couldn't get things done in 60 days without the private discussions and deals that occur throughout the session.

But the Legislature isn't the only place in Hawai'i where open-government laws are thwarted.

Gov. Linda Lingle's administration stalled for months before responding to a formal request for the names of businesses and organizations that have helped underwrite her trade missions.

Why should you care who they are?

Because some private underwriters of the missions were promised special access to foreign government leaders and to VIP events, a practice that raises at least the question of pay-to-play politics.

Ted Liu, director of the state Department of Business, Economic Development & Tourism, denied The Advertiser's June 2005 request for information about the donors, saying it would be hard to get future sponsorships if the public knew who was contributing. He finally released the list last month.

Another agency, the state Department of Transportation, has fought the release of traffic-accident data, in part because officials say it could generate lawsuits claiming that government failed to correct known traffic hazards.

Battles over access and records clearly complicate journalists' work, but Sunshine Week isn't about making our lives easier.

It's about the core premise that democratic government operates with the consent of the governed. And none of us can give informed consent if we don't know what those who govern us are doing.

To see what rights you're entitled to under Hawai'i's open-government laws, you can consult the Web site of the state Office of Information Practices, www.state.hi.us/oip.

You can also see our guide to how you can use sunshine laws to get specific kinds of information from the city, state and federal governments.

Reach Saundra Keyes at skeyes@honoluluadvertiser.com.